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Midair collision is high drama on English Channel

The bombing run had been a success on the long-ago afternoon of Aug. 25, 1944, and headed back to England were Frank P. Moscovic and his five crew members flying high above the English Channel in their twin-engine B-26 bomber.

They had dropped their payload, a couple of 2,000-pound demolition bombs, on the Brest peninsula, a German stronghold in northern France where the enemy hid in caves.

The uneventful return flight took on drama when a pilot in one of the other returning aircraft radioed he was running low on fuel and broke away from the formation.

"We were about 9,000 feet above the English Channel when suddenly the plane that was low on fuel returned to the formation and collided midair with my plane and knocked out our left engine," Moscovic recalls.

Thinking the end was near, Moscovic's tail gunner jumped from the plane and yanked the rip cord of his parachute. He survived.

"We took our plane down to about 3,000 feet and tried to fly it," he says, "but we came under fire from the Germans who still controlled Guernsey and Jersey islands in the channel, and they knocked out our right engine. They also killed our radio operator."

With no power, there was nothing left to do but crash.

"The pilot tried to get us as far into the channel out of the range of those 88 mm anti-aircraft guns before he made a dead-stick landing into the wind," Moscovic remembers. "Going into the wind and hitting waves coming at us slowed the plane."

Noticing the plane's pilot in distress, Moscovic swam toward him.

"My parachute was still on my back, and that slowed me down," Moscovic says. "But the pilot did not know how to swim, and he was hanging on a flotation cushion.

"I brought him to the one-man dinghy that the engineer-gunner had gotten out of the plane. Four of us clung to the sides of that dinghy."

Worn out, Moscovic soon felt like simply letting go of the dinghy, come what may.

"But two of the other guys lifted me inside the dinghy," he says. "We were in the water, which had to be about 50 degrees, for about 45 minutes to an hour."

Help eventually arrived in the form of a Navy boat, sparing them a watery grave.

Because of injuries they had all suffered in their crash landing, crew members each received a Purple Heart.

For Moscovic, his third bombing mission had been a baptism of fire. No longer was he the fearless young aviator who challenged Hitler's war machine.

Moscovic had become a man painfully aware of his mortality, which was driven home each time he went on another bombing run -- 25 more to be exact -- before the war in Europe ended.

"I had not been afraid up until then, but every mission after that, I was frightened," he says. "When you have a midair collision, then get shot at and crash-land, it kind of sharpens up your thoughts of what could happen."

So when he completed his World War II service, he was ready to return to civilian life and the relative safety of ironwork, right?

Well, not exactly. He joined the Army Reserve.

A shortage of pilots returned him to active duty in 1952 for the Korean War, and he began training navigators for B-25 bombers.

"After that, a group of us were trained as single-engine jet fighter pilots, and we started training other pilots to fly T-33 trainer jets," he says. "Around this time, I decided to stay in the military so I could get a pension. I later received training in the C-124 cargo planes, and in 1958 and 1959, I flew them into Seoul, South Korea."

He missed out on direct war duty in Korea but years later found his way into another Asian war.

"I never thought I would be in another war," he says. "At the time, I was 46 years old, married and with three children and one on the way."

Moscovic participated in one of the major battles of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive, which started Jan. 30, 1968.

"The enemy had encircled the U.S. air base at Saigon, and all planes were grounded except the C-130 I was flying," he recalls. "It was an emergency call for whole blood, and we delivered it to Saigon.

"As we came in for a landing, the runway was being bombed ahead of us, but we managed to land. And while we were taxiing to unload, the tower said, 'If anyone approaches the airplane, shoot them.'

"We lowered the tailgate, stopped for a minute or two, shoved out the pallets of blood and took off. We only had 3,500 feet of runway guaranteed. After that, the bombs were coming at us. It wasn't smiley time."

Not until they had climbed high into the sky did he and his crew begin to breathe easy.

A year later, he would breathe even easier. Moscovic retired with 27 years of service and that long-sought pension.

He returned to his original vocation as an ironworker and with his wife, Peggy, bought a house in the Town of Tonawanda. Sunday, he and his bride will celebrate 62 years of marriage.

What can he say about Peggy, who has given him love and support for so many years?

Without hesitation: "Peggy is a lovely person."

***

>Frank P. Moscovic, 90

Hometown: Canonsburg, Pa.

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branches: Army Air Forces and Air Force

Rank: Lieutenant colonel

War zones: Europe, Vietnam

Years of service: Army Air Forces, 1942-46; Army Reserve, 1946-52; Air Force, 1952-69

Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, European Theater Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Longevity Service Award with four oak leaf clusters, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal

Specialty: Pilot